Federal Court Funding

Overview

The federal judiciary requires sufficient funds to perform the core functions assigned to it by the Constitution and Congress, including adjudicating all cases filed in federal courts; supervising defendants awaiting trial and criminals on post-conviction release; providing representation for indigent defendants; securing jurors for jury trials; and ensuring the safety of all those who work at or enter federal court facilities. These are vast responsibilities that generate a workload over which the judiciary has no control. In 2013, over 430,000 cases were filed in district courts and courts of appeals; over 1.1 million petitions were filed in bankruptcy courts; over 160,000 persons were placed under pre-trial or post-conviction supervision; and representation to indigent defendants was provided under the Criminal Justice Act in over 225,000 criminal cases.  

The Judiciary's Annual Appropriation: Where the Money Goes

Over 70 percent of the judiciary's budget falls into its Salaries and Expenses account, which pays for rent, judicial and court personnel salaries and benefits, and operating and information technology expenses.

Defender Services expenses, which include funding for public defender organizations and compensation for private attorneys representing indigent defendants under the Criminal Justice Act, account for the next largest percentage of the judiciary's annual budget – approximately 15 percent.

The rest of the judiciary's yearly appropriation primarily pays for court security, juror fees, and operational costs for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO), the Federal Judicial Center, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, and the Judiciary Retirement Trust Fund. 

The House and Senate Appropriations Subcommittees on Financial Services and General Government have jurisdiction over the federal judiciary's annual appropriation.

Deficit Reduction and FY 2013 Funding for the Courts


A. The Budget Control Act.       

The Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011 provided a blueprint to reduce the federal deficit by over $2 trillion by 2021. It imposed caps on discretionary programs to reduce the deficit by more than $1 trillion and directed Congress to craft a bipartisan plan to achieve an additional $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction by 2021. The “super-committee” tasked with this assignment in 2011 failed to produce a plan. This triggered a fallback mechanism requiring across-the-board budget cuts in 2013. From 2014 through 2021, it mandated reductions to the annual caps on discretionary spending as well as automatic cuts to selected entitlement programs in each year.

B. FY 2013 Funding: Sequestration Reduces Funding by $350 Million

FY 2013 sequestration, which reduced the budget of the judiciary by $350 million, had a devastating impact on federal court operations nationwide. Flat funding in FY 2011 and FY 2012, followed by sequestration, required the judiciary to downsize staff in the offices of clerks of courts and probation and pretrial services by 3,200 (nearly 15 percent) and in federal defender offices by 400 (11 percent). These staffing losses have resulted in the slower processing of cases: since 2011, the median time from filing to disposition of civil cases increased from 7.3 months to 8.5 months.  In addition, funding for court security systems was cut by 30 percent, and court security officers were required to reduce their work hours. Two weeks of voucher payments to CJA panel attorneys had to be deferred until 2014 and funding for jurors ran out in August, requiring the courts to transfer funding from other accounts already facing shortfalls.

For more information on sequestration and the courts, see the AO’s page on sequestration at: http://news.uscourts.gov/issues/sequestration

C. The Road to FY 2014 Funding: Government Shutdown, a Continuing Resolution, and the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013

The failure of the House and Senate to agree on a stopgap continuing resolution to keep the government financed at FY 2013 levels through the fall led to a Government shutdown on October 1, 2013 -- the start of the 2014 fiscal year.  

The judiciary, unlike most other federal entities, did not have to implement a shutdown plan because the Executive Committee of the Judicial Conference of the U.S. Courts authorized the use of funding from filing fees and long-term ("no-year") appropriations to keep the courts in operation, albeit in a reduced state of operations.

The 16-day government shutdown ended October 17 when President Obama signed a continuing resolution that funded the government through January 15, 2014, and instructed a conference committee to develop a bipartisan budget plan by December.

While keeping most of the government at its reduced FY 2013 levels, the continuing resolution provided an additional $51 million for the federal judiciary -- $25 million for court operations and $26 million to pay court-appointed public defenders owed money for services rendered during the last two weeks of FY 2013.  

The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 established new spending levels for both FY 2014 and FY 2015 that raised the discretionary caps imposed by the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011 to $1.012 trillion in FY 2014 and $1.014 trillion in 2015 and instructed that the extra funds were to be split evenly between defense and non-defense discretionary spending. The new FY 2014 cap provided an additional $45 million in discretionary spending authority, an amount sufficient to enable the appropriators to restore some funding cuts and agree on a final spending measure for FY 2014.

Three and one-half months after the fiscal year started, the President was presented with and signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act, funding the federal government for the fiscal year ending September 2014. 

FY 2014 Appropriations for the Judiciary - $6.516 Billion in Discretionary Funding

Beginning in FY 2014, funding for mandatory Article III and bankruptcy judges’ salaries and Judiciary Retirement trust funds will be appropriated on an actual cost basis.

The judiciary received a 5.1 percent ($316 million) increase in discretionary funding over its FY 2013 sequestered amount, which means that the judiciary is currently funded at its pre‑sequestration level.

With regard to the judiciary’s three largest accounts:

  • Salaries and Expenses account received $4.66 billion, 4.9 percent more than FY 2013;
  • Defender Services account received $1.04 billion, a 5.9 percent increase; and
  • Court Security account received $497.5 million, a 5.0 percent increase.

According to the AO, FY 2014 funding restores cuts to:

  • mental health and drug testing and treatment services for offenders released from prison and defendants awaiting trial, and related GPS location monitoring of those individuals;
  • information technology and essential network infrastructure;
  • court security and fees of jurors programs
  • the hourly rate for panel attorneys (which was a temporary rate cut of $15 per hour)  

The 5.9 percent increase in funding for the Defender Services program is sufficient to allow hiring for over 350 positions to backfill those lost due to sequestration, as well as to fill additional positions needed to address increased weighted caseloads. The 4.9 percent increase to the Salaries and Expenses account will enable courts to maintain on-board staffing levels and begin to backfill some of the 3,200 staff lost since 2011.

Congressional appropriators acknowledge the importance of the judiciary.

It is important to emphasize that congressional appropriators sent a clear message to their colleagues that the judiciary needs to be treated as a funding priority when they approved FY 2014 appropriation bills last summer that recommended funding for the judiciary at pre-sequestration levels and when they provided an additional $51 million for the judiciary in the continuing funding resolution that ended the 16-day government shut-down. The ABA commends these actions.

FY 2015 Request - $6.7 billion

The White House, which released its budget on March 4, transmitted the judiciary’s FY 2015 budget request of $6.7 billion in discretionary appropriations without changes, as required by law. The judiciary is proposing a 3.4 percent funding increase over its FY 2014 level.

Judge Julia Gibbons, Chair of the Judicial Conference Committee on the Budget, testified in support of the proposed budget before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government on March 26. She explained that clerks of court, probation and pretrial services offices, and federal defender organizations will have the ability to continue backfilling vacancies. The request will fund projected workload requirements in defender services, provides for a sufficient level of security at federal court facilities nationwide, and ensures funds are available for juror costs associated with criminal and civil jury trials. A breakdown of the budget request by account line is available here.

Outlook

The judiciary faces significant funding challenges in FY 2015. The new FY 2015 discretionary spending limit set by the Bipartisan Budget Act  is only $2 billion higher than this year's and has to be split equally between defense and non-defense spending. This will greatly limit the ability of Congress to provide the Judiciary with any real increase in FY 2015 above its current funding level.

Even though the bipartisan budget deal was supposed to set a new tone this session by allowing the appropriations cycle to begin with agreement over a top-line discretionary spending level, House Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan wrote a new budget resolution for FY 2015, which was approved by the House on April 10, 2014. Although this set up the expectation that the House would renege on the agreement reached in the Bipartisan Budget Act with regard to spending limits for 2015, this has proven not to be the case. Chair Ryan filed the House’s FY 2015 revenue and spending aggregates and committee allocations on April 29.

Even with spending levels intact, it is not likely that bipartisan accord will dominate the appropriations process. With midterm elections fast approaching and the control of the Senate at stake, it is more likely that work on individual appropriation bills will be abandoned after the August recess and that appropriators will resort to a continuing resolution to keep the government funded until after the elections.   

Federal Court Funding and Immigration Reform Legislation

If enacted, S.744, comprehensive immigration reform legislation that passed the Senate in June 2013 will significantly increase the workload of the judiciary because of its enhanced enforcement provisions and expanded opportunities for judicial review.

During the Senate Judiciary Committee markup of S. 744, an amendment supported by the ABA was adopted to give the judiciary access to the funding mechanism created by the bill to help offset costs of implementation. As introduced, the bill only authorized executive branch entities responsible for enforcement of the immigration laws and border security to secure funds from the Comprehensive Trust Fund set up by the bill.

Prior to floor passage, the amendment was stricken from the bill while the provision authorizing executive branch access was not challenged. The House has made it clear that it will not consider comprehensive immigration reform legislation this session.

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